Priscilla de Villiers's world was turned upside down by the murder of her 19-year-old daughter, Nina.
In spite of her shock and grief, de Villiers recalls she dealt with police, made funeral arrangements and handled bereft family members and friends. She also became a nationally recognized anti-violence activist, starting a victims' lobby group called CAVEAT and later co-founding the Victim Justice Network, a non-profit organization that supports victims of crime in Canada.
De Villiers says she was fortunate to have overwhelming support from strangers and those around her. But even now, 26 years later, she doesn't know how she managed to carry on.
"You just sort of persevere," she says. "I kind of kept going. And thank goodness I had the strength to do that."
A new study, launched in partnership with the Victim Justice Network, is trying to learn what makes victims of violent crime resilient. The study, conducted by researchers from Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa, is asking participants how they coped after trauma and tragedy, and how they found support and inner strength.
"What makes our research a big deal is that much of the research around for victims of violence focuses around the harms experienced by victims," says Jennifer Barkley, project manager of the study. "Less is known about their strengths that contribute to their resilience, and that's why we find this so exciting because we're giving victims of violence a chance to reflect on their strengths."
Researchers are looking for 300 to 500 volunteers, who have either experienced violent crime or abuse firsthand or are a family member or partner of a homicide victim, to participate in an online survey, Barkley says. They also hope to conduct 30 to 40 in-person or telephone interviews. Participants must be 18 or older, although the incidents may have occurred when they were younger.
Barkley notes the measure of victims' strength and resilience is highly individual.
"For some victims, it's a strength literally just to get out of bed in the morning. For other people, it's very strong of them to advocate," she says.
Study investigators are not looking to make comparisons, she says. Rather, they are interested in learning how participants achieved a subjective sense of wellness so their findings may be used to train victims' service providers to better help those affected by violent crime.
The findings of the study, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, will be shared widely and will be formally integrated into the curriculum of the graduate victimology program at Algonquin College, Barkley says.
Barkley has a personal interest in this research. She credits victims' service providers with the victim and witness assistance program, which worked with the Crown attorney, and those with correctional services for helping her cope with the murder of her sister in 1999.
By listening to her and making her feel like she wasn't alone, she says, "I think they helped me to hold my head up and they helped me to see that there was life outside of and beyond the crime."
De Villiers explains the grief and trauma experienced by victims of violent crime is often complicated by a host of factors, including a loss of privacy, as well as public scrutiny and judgment. While some cases may be highly publicized, others receive little or no attention at all, leaving victims feeling forgotten or neglected, she says.
The court system, she adds, has its own timeline: "I can't tell you how many people have been in court on the birthday or [anniversary] of the death of a loved one."
And for some, the connection to the criminal justice system doesn't end with the courts, but continues years later as offenders seek release, she says.
Although each victim and each circumstance is different, de Villiers says she hopes the research can help identify common measures that anyone working with victims can take, whether they are employers, social workers, health professionals or neighbours.
Resilience, she says, "is ordinary. It's an ordinary human trait. The question is how can we support it so that this will expedited...and so that strength will be gained?"